Thursday, 08 April 2021 12:00

From freelance language consultant to in-house scientific writer

Written by Claire Bacon

Sally Hill in front of the Merus offices

Although many SENSE members are freelancers, this is not always the case. SENSE member and former freelancer Sally Hill has just started a new in-house job at an international biotech company. Claire Bacon caught up with her in the week she made the switch.

You are starting your new job as a scientific writer on 1 April. How long have you been working as a medical and scientific writer and when did you realize you wanted to make this your full-time job?

When I set up my business 13 years ago, it was initially as a freelance Dutch-English translator in the life sciences. I soon felt confident enough to offer editing as well, and through SENSE I got involved in teaching scientific writing. It wasn’t until about six years ago that I first started getting writing assignments too – from the same company I’m now moving to. The scientific reports I write for them are quite technical and nerdy, and right up my street. This encouraged me to look for similar clients, and I discovered the world of medical writing and the European Medical Writers Association (EMWA). Through this professional network, I realized that medical writing might be better suited to my science background.

But it was only recently that I thought of taking up this client’s offer of a part-time contract –previously, it would have been near impossible to schedule my teaching activities around fixed days at an office. Various things came together over the past few months: teaching for two of my university clients came to an end; all my other teaching went online because of the pandemic and the increased screen time was giving me back and neck issues; plus, my husband was thinking of going freelance himself. For financial security, we decided one of us should be on a fixed contract, and I was ready for a change!

I imagine the skills for medical and scientific writing overlap a little with those for medical editing. What makes you more suited to writing rather than editing? 

When I write for scientists, they really appreciate my critical questions and attention to detail – in other words, the aspects that made me rather a slow editor improve the quality and consistency of their documentation. When editing, I probably take too much time looking up references and researching the topic of a research paper I’m editing – often purely out of interest in the science, which I think I’ve probably always missed. But of course, my experience as an editor makes me a much better writer. And now I have a junior writer to help train up, for which my teaching experience will also come in handy. Win-win!

Did you do any special training when you transitioned to medical writing, or did you learn on the job?

It was mainly on-the-job training. In general, scientists become familiar with scientific writing during their master and doctoral studies, so it’s not something you need training in if that’s your background. And that’s where the scientists at the company ‘learned’ to write – not that their English is perfect, but for internal documentation that’s often less important. Of course, after I started offering scientific and medical writing as part of my business, I made sure to brush up my writing skills where possible by attending relevant webinars and workshops. I attended EMWA’s virtual conference last year and hope to go to the next one in May.

What advice would you give anybody who wants to move into medical writing? Does it help to work as an editor first?

Being a science editor certainly gives you a head start. But many medical writers are not native English speakers, and many have no formal language skills or training. Apart from the scientific writing that I do, medical writing can also include things like translation, statistics, regulatory writing, project management, marketing and copywriting. You don’t necessarily need specific training, but from what I can tell it can be hard to get a job without a bit of experience. Many people work in a related field before applying for a medical writing job.

EMWA offers lots of training workshops at their twice-yearly conferences and their website has a wealth of information and resources, including a useful Career Guide to Medical Writing. You can also join the Netherlands Science and Medical Writers Network that I helped set up with other freelancers. We have private groups on Facebook and LinkedIn where aspiring and experienced medical writers – both freelance and in-house – can ask questions, share resources and post jobs.

You are going to be working for Merus in Utrecht. What attracted you to this company?

Before making this decision, I did think carefully about whether we were a good match. Before the first lockdown, when I was still freelancing for them, I was going into the Merus offices once a week. Attending meetings and eating lunch in the staff canteen improved communication in general and helped my ‘colleagues’ know who I was. This also gave me a pretty good feel for the company and the people who work there. My gut feeling says they care about their employees; they pay them well and morale is good. I also really like the international feel of the place – they also have offices in the US and the staff are from all over.

What will you miss most (and the least!) about being freelance?

I think I’ll probably miss the camaraderie of my freelance colleagues. As a freelancer, networking has become second nature and I can get a real kick out of making connections with others, even if I don’t necessarily know whether it’ll bring in new work. Of course, I can still stay connected with others and continue to expand my network, but it won’t be part of my working day anymore.

What I won’t miss is the admin! I tend to put off my quarterly tax returns, and the paperwork can really pile up towards the deadline. And, of course, I won’t miss the uncertainty of being my own boss, and the pandemic has brought this home to many of us. While I was fortunate to see no drop in income over the past year, the idea that I no longer have to keep an eye out for new clients in case current ones let me down is very reassuring.

Everyone will want to know whether becoming a full-time medical writer means you are leaving SENSE! Do you plan to stay involved with the Society? And do you think scientific and medical writers can benefit from SENSE membership? 

It really hadn’t occurred to me to leave SENSE! Of course, I’m no longer a freelancer and I’m no longer translating/editing/teaching. But that doesn’t mean I don’t need the expertise of SENSE colleagues or that I am no longer willing to share my own. I’ll have Fridays off and so will still have a few hours a week left for my various bits of voluntary work (including SENSE) and for my one-to-one coaching clients.

In terms of what the Society can offer to scientific and medical writers, I recommended SENSE to an aspiring medical writer only last week. This non-native English speaker with a science PhD wanted help in developing writing skills before applying for writing jobs. I recommended that they join SENSE and team up with a mentor to get feedback on their writing. I know of no other organization in the Netherlands that offers a similar mentoring programme. In that respect, SENSE really is an ideal association for professionals in the Netherlands looking for support in developing their English language skills.

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